Language on Fire Documentation Initiative


This special once-off CoEDL project was put in place after the disastrous 2019-2020 fire season, to encourage documentation of traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices regarding fire management, as communicated through one or more Australian languages. The Scheme will provide funding of 4-6 research projects, spanning a range of ecological zones and drawing on established documentation work on a particular language or language cluster.


Our recent apocalyptic summer of unprecedented wild fires has led to new interest in traditional indigenous regimes of fire management, and general expressions of the need to support and extend this are beginning to appear regularly in the media, finally picking up on the late Rhys Jones’ stress on the importance of ‘Firestick Farming’ (and see Latz 1995 for the arid zone), and the foundational studies by Russell-Smith et al (2009a,b) showing that adopting traditional regimes of fire management significantly reduces CO2 emission. These studies have resulted in a number of companies, seeking carbon abatement, giving financial support to various Indigenous Ranger groups (e.g. Mimal Land Management) and Land Councils. This virtuous spiral has resulted in meaningful paid employment on country, improved transmission of traditional knowledge (both through motivation and through mechanisms to bring together knowledgeable elders with fit youngsters), reduced wild fires, better overall ecological management, and the establishment of Aboriginal carbon abatement businesses.

Despite this, discussion of the details of Traditional Indigenous Fire Management (TIFM) in different ecological zones remain sketchy. The 80-page study by Murray Garde and nine Bininj Kun-wok speaking elders (Garde et al 2009), presenting in bilingual mode the detail of how knowledge of highly specific burning activities calibrated to season, winds, locale, and vegetation type, has no peer at this level of detail. This leaves the language of fire as a crucial uninvestigated area at the nexus of language documentation, traditional cultural management, and public policy. Successful re-adoption of TIFM practices will work better if we can extend studies like this out into other language groups and environmental settings. That is the purpose of this scheme – to encourage 4-6 research projects, spanning a range of ecological zones each calling for their own TIFM strategies, and each piggybacking established documentation work on a particular language or language cluster, e.g. as extra field time or travel to additional areas.

Typical projects will involve collaboration between linguists/language workers, knowledgeable elders, and ranger groups, to document language relevant to fire management – including winds, seasonal cues, burning techniques, fire types etc. Each project should produce rich primary documentation (on-site recordings, video, audio and photo, with mapping data where possible), transcriptions and translations, as well as analysis in the form of an annotated list of relevant vocabulary and/or plans for an article on the topic. (We are planning a special journal issue or other online publication). In exceptional cases, as when dealing with parts of Australia where the language is no longer widely spoken, a proposal may be based on older documentary sources, but the onus will be on the applicant to show some evidence that relevant data is to be found there (i.e. you need to give examples, citing the MS source, rather than just saying you are likely to find some).

Funding will be made available across a number of projects (4-7 depending on the applications we receive) with a budgetary range of $3,000 to $5,000 per project. Leveraging of other funds or in-kind support will help stretch these funds further, and will be viewed positively. Any such multipliers should be mentioned in the project proposal.


Garde, Murray, in collaboration with  Bardayal Lofty Nadjamerrek, Mary Kolkkiwarra, Jimmy Kalarriya, Jack Djandjomerr, Bill Birriyabirriya, Ruby Bilindja, Mick Kubarkku and Peter Biless. 2009. The language of fire: seasonality, resources and landscape burning on the Arnhem Land plateau. In Jeremy Russell-Smith et al (ed.s) Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas. CSIRO Publishing. Pp. 85-164.

Jones, Rhys. 1968. Firestick farming. Australian Natural History 16:224-228.

Russell-Smith, Jeremy et al. 2009a. Improving estimates of savanna burning emissions for greenhouse accounting in Northern Australia: limitations, challenges. International Journal of Wildland Fire applications. 18:1-18.

Russell-Smith, Jeremy et al (ed.s). 2009b.  Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in North Australian Savannas. CSIRO Publishing.


The Scheme is open to researchers who are CoEDL members or affiliates (excluding Chief Investigators). This includes CoEDL Post-doctoral fellows and researchers, HDR students, Associates and Affiliate Investigators, and Partner Investigators. Broader teams are welcome (e.g. involving local ranger groups) but the project leader must be a CoEDL member or affiliate. All applications must be endorsed by a Chief Investigator who agrees to receive and coordinate the funds, and oversee the project.

Applicants need to apply for the Scheme via the online form. The application deadline is 1 December 2020. All applicants should have read and understood the guidelines noting the process for submitting final reports. Final reports must be received by December 2021. 

Note that this is a once-off round. This Scheme differs from other CoEDL schemes and the timing will have to be strictly adhered to. There can be no expenditure after the stipulated funding period. The project must be completed within the available timeframe.  

Terms and Conditions

Applications should be uploaded via the online form. Please upload the application, including letters of confirmation from collaborators, as one PDF document.

Applications will be assessed and ranked by a committee of 5 CoEDL members plus one outside expert. In addition to the quality of the applications, the need to obtain a good geographical and ecological spread across projects will be taken into account. This committee will then forward their recommendations to the CoEDL Executive Committee for endorsement. Centre members may only hold one grant (as first-named recipient) under this Scheme. Chief Investigators may sponsor more than one application.

Project final reports (describing the outcomes of the research and including actual expenditure) should be submitted, via the online final report form, within two months of the project end date. All primary recordings and associated transcripts and metadata must be deposited with CoEDL. Grantees will liaise with the CoEDL Data Archiving Officer to be advised on formats for their records in advance of fieldwork. At least one narrative should be prepared for public presentation in the EOPAS format.

Project funding will be between $3,000 and $5,000 for each approved project. Funds must be spent by the institution of the Chief Investigator who will be endorsing the applicant. Funding of consultancy fees to or salaries of funding recipients is not an eligible budget item. Funds are distributed under the Centre Collaborating Agreement, and as such carry the same expenditure, reporting and intellectual property requirements as agreed to by the four collaborating institutions. The Collaborating Agreement is available through the Centre website or by contacting Centre administration at

Time Frame

1. Application closing date is COB 1 December.

2. It is anticipated that applicants will be notified of the outcome mid-December. Feedback will be provided to unsuccessful applicants.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University